The guidebooks still call Korea 'the land of the morning calm'. I'd not expected that. I knew that, once, the country had been calm - and archaic, involuted and corrupt - and had been easy prey to Japan in 1910. But the Japanese had imposed their language, expropriated landlords, set up industries, and, with an efficiency and determination unmatched by any of the other colonial powers, given the place their own 20th-century shape. I knew that after they'd gone, the inattention of the USA and the USSR and the UN's weakness had together allowed an invasion from the Communist North which had since divided the country. I knew that the Americans had subsequently made the South - the Republic of Korea, 'the Rock' - a front-line state. And I knew that in part for that reason, it had since been subject to tight and occasionally violent regimes which in the name of 'freedom' - but, in fact, on a Japanese model it couldn't acknowledge and by means that would be the envy of many a Western socialist - had generated an economic growth unrivalled anywhere outside Japan itself. I'd also just been convinced by R.W. Johnson's account of the downing of the Korean 747 in 1983. I'd not expected calm.
LRB 20 November 1986 | PDF Download